Saturday, February 23, 2008

Is past and present counsel regarding multiplying and replenishing really that different? (Part 1)

(I have made a few edits to this to clarify my purposes and thoughts.)

Disclaimer: I have seen this kind of question come up many times in discussions, and I wanted to do a bit of a study to see if the counsel (and I'm thinking more along the lines of doctrinal underpinnings) really has changed that much.

I want to make clear (although I hope it goes without saying) that these posts should not be understood as official interpretation, or the final word, or even all that is said. I just included some of the things I found in my study that I thought were relevant and important. Your own personal study on the topic might lead you to focus on different things, of course. And, of course, your opinion about the answer to the above question may differ from mine.

This topic comes up once in a while, and is one I wrote about last year. The post I wrote before included only recent counsel (which was plentiful!), but given a recent post on this topic (hi, BiV), I have wanted to explore this further, looking at past quotes in comparison to current quotes, so since it has been brought up again elsewhere, it sort of spurred me to do what I had wanted to do before.

In response to BiV's post, I want to make it clear that I do not deny that there is less focus on birth control specifically, and definitely no specific counsel about only using natural means for birth control. I mentioned this in last year's post. But I don't see this shift as a change in doctrine, but rather a change in some of the specific counsel given. The foundational principles that have driven prophetic comments about the commandment to multiply and replenish throughout this dispensation have, in my view, remained the same. This is both exciting and sobering, as we have a great responsibility on our shoulders to know the doctrine and then true to it. I believe the same principles underlie all of the counsel that has been given over time and that is still being given now.

To me, that also means that the core teachings about what is sinful and what is not have not fundamentally changed. I think it is essential as we consider this issue to separate out methods (whether or not to use birth control) from the doctrine (multiply and replenish -- still in force!) and our motivations (whether or not to follow the commandments and fulfill God's purposes through our choices and how to go about doing that). I believe there is nothing to suggest that now it's suddenly ok to use birth control for selfish reasons (not that I think BiV was suggesting that...this post goes far beyond responding to BiV in purpose), and that there isn't the potential for severe (even eternal) consequences for not fulfilling this commandment. (This was all addressed as recently as the beginning of this month!) Our leaders have expressed concern about the falling birth rates in the Church. I think the message is that these topics of marriage and family are still topics we need to grasp better as a people.

I know this is a tender topic. This post is not meant to create unnecessary guilt or contention. There are plenty of people who want children and can't have them. There are many of us who struggle with health issues that need to be taken into consideration, and these questions weigh heavily on our minds. As one who struggles with this, I do not mean this post to cause more pain for people in such situations. I just want to review the doctrine, the ideals, the principles that we are taught and have been taught throughout this dispensation.

I loved this from Elder Oaks from the recent broadcast:

One of the most comforting passages in all of scripture for me is in the 137th section of the Doctrine and Covenants, verse 9, where we’re told that the Lord will judge us according to our works and according to the desires of our hearts.
So, this post is simply designed to allow people to further consider the topic that is so often revisited, to check their understandings and hearts against the teachings of this dispensation (which is something we should do on a regular basis in all aspects of our lives) - not to add to the personal and social angst that exists unnecessarily among members of the Church.

And, of course, I hope it goes without saying that we do not judge each other on these topics, and also we do not berate ourselves for things that are outside of our control. We do our best with what we know and what we have been given and trust in the Lord's promises when dreams aren't yet fulfilled and when life doesn't quite work out the way we want it to, even when we are striving to be faithful and obedient.

This doctrine to me should cause those who have sacrificed to have many children (in the past and in the present) to rejoice in their choices. All of us, as we were recently told, should rejoice when such choices are made by others! And it should cause those of us still in this mode of life to carefully and prayerfully consider the doctrine and discern what sacrifices the Lord might expect from us in the realm of multiplying and replenishing. Sometimes those sacrifices are in having children even when it's hard and frightening. And for others, those sacrifices require letting go of dreams and holding onto eternal promises when the opportunities to have children don't come as they would hope.

Below (and in part 2). I explore past and present quotes to further explore the consistency in doctrine throughout this dispensation.

On Exceptions and Agency and Making Careful Choices

First of all, it may not be well known that there has always been room for choice at some level, as counsel throughout the years has left room for protecting the health of the mother. There are many quotes that illustrate this, but I will include only a few here.

"Ill health may make birth control necessary. A weakened body or actual
disease may justify protection of the mother and the unborn child
against any further physiological burden." (John A. Widtsoe, Evidences and Reconciliations, p.310) (John A. Widstoe was very vocal about this issue of birth control, who was also a strong proponent of natural family planning.)

"As to the lesser sin of preventing conception, no general rule can be laid down, there are so many different circumstances distinguishing one case from another and such a difference in motives that each particular case has to be judged by itself and decided by the light of the Spirit." (Wilford Woodruff and Joseph F. Smith to Job Pingree, Jan. 23, 1894, emphasis added.)

(I found this really interesting, and supportive of the idea that things really aren't THAT different. Even as birth control was being called sinful, the clarification was given that no absolute rule could be established because motives and circumstances DO come into play when considering birth control (and its potential sinfulness -- even for us today.))

Elder Joseph Fielding Smith: “'Multiply and replenish the earth.'
I am now speaking of the normally healthy man and woman. But
that there are weak and sickly people who in wisdom, discretion and
common sense should be counted as exceptions, only strengthens the
general rule.
" (“A Vital Question,” Improvement Era 1908 October, 959-960)

"The Church cannot give a blanket or over-all answer to the question which would be applicable to all situations." (Hugh B. Brown quoted by Mark E. Peterson)

Using the last two quotes as a springboard, I wanted to take a small sidestep here.

On Rules and Ideals vs. Exceptions

(from the recent Worldwide Leadership Training Broadcast)

"We can add to that that we are teaching general principles because we are General Authorities and general officers." -Elder Oaks

"Now, I hope this helps you understand why we talk about the pattern, the ideal, of marriage and family when we know full well that not everyone now lives in that ideal circumstance. It is precisely because many don’t have, or perhaps have never even seen, that ideal and because some cultural forces steadily move us away from that ideal, that we speak about what our Father in Heaven wishes for us in His eternal plan for His children." -Elder Holland

I'm going to say this often here. Has the rule really changed? Have the fundamental doctrines really changed? Is the ideal different? I submit that none of these have fundamentally changed. The doctrines have been taught, and exceptions have been recognized, which means choice and agency have been respected all along the way, and the condemnation that we read about simply cannot be interpreted as a blanket condemnation of birth control in every situation.

There is a pattern in my mind, a pattern of teaching the rule, but recognizing that there are exceptions. That has been consistent.

Going back to the past for a moment, note the date on this one from Elder Boyd K. Packer, who is often (IMO) one of the most direct of our leaders on topics such as these:

"Often when young couples come, they ask the specific question, “How many children should we plan to have?” This I cannot answer, for it is not within my province to know. With some persons there are no restrictions of health, and perhaps a number of children will be born into the family. Some good parents who would have large families are blessed with but one or two children. And, occasionally, couples who
make wonderful parents are not able to have natural offspring and enjoy the marvelous experience of fostering children born to others. Planned Parenthood involves a good deal more than just the begetting of children. Nothing in our lives deserves more planning than our responsibilities in parenthood. (Boyd K. Packer, Conference Report, Oct 1966, p. 132)

So, again, I ask, is the choice we have really so new? Is the recognition that there are exceptions to the rule really that revolutionary? As such, are we certain that the teachings are really that different at the core?

10 comments:

Anonymous said...

I don't think the doctrine of welcoming children into our homes has changed. I think that the church policy toward artificial birth control has indeed changed.

Rather than looking at quotes from general authorities, I think that looking at the church handbook entries would make this quite clear.

The current practice does not even discourage the use of birth control. It simply leaves it up to the wife and husband and the Lord.

M&M said...

I don't disagree about counsel about methods per se, but my whole point is that I think some people (speaking to general trends and attitudes I have seen and that have been addressed by our leaders) have extrapolated this 'it's between the couple and the Lord' thing to mean that it doesn't matter if you limit your family size. That is a jump that shouldn't be made, and that is my point.

I also think that sometimes we emphasize differences in counsel over time too much at the expense of the similarities and consistencies that really should be the most important factors in our decision-making anyway. I think this happens with other topics as well (take education for women, for example).

Bored in Vernal said...

Hi M!
Good job on this. I think your post and my post are matching halves of the same apple. You admit:

"I want to make it clear that I do not deny that there is less focus on birth control specifically, and definitely no specific counsel about only using natural means for birth control."

and I concede:

"Since its inception in 1830, the LDS Church has maintained a positive stance toward the propogation of the human race. Due to its doctrine of premortal existence, members have been urged to welcome spirits to earth by providing them physical tabernacles. Married LDS couples today are counseled to desire children and to prayerfully decide how many they can provide for physically, emotionally, and financially."

So I think we are just emphasizing different aspects of these teachings. You are demonstrating the similarities over time of the teachings about the importance of bringing children into earthly families. I am discussing the change in policy concerning birth control.

m&m said...

Ann, you can disagree, but the way I am using it, doctrine is the underlying, unchanging principles that are the foundation of the plan of God. I am not simply pulling that out of thin air, mind you. :)

Take, for example, the following from Pres. Packer (Ensign, November 1993):

Some things cannot be changed. Doctrine cannot be changed.

“Principles which have been revealed,” President Wilford Woodruff said, “for the salvation and exaltation of the children of men … are principles you cannot annihilate. They are principles that no combination of men [or women] can destroy. They are principles that can never die. … They are beyond the reach of man to handle or to destroy. … It is not in the power of the whole world put together to destroy those principles. … Not one jot or tittle of these principles will ever be destroyed.”

Separating out doctrine (the underlying principles that don't change) and counsel or the specifics of commandments (which can change) can, imo, help us process change when it happens.

So according to the above definition, I do not see counsel regarding birth control as doctrinal at all. And I think there is sufficient evidence to show that the doctrinal teachings about the important roles of marriage and parenthood in the plan of God have not changed through the ages. Specific counsel and commandments have, but not the underlying principles.

Marriage between man and woman has always been foundational to the plan (sometimes that has included plural marriage, but that doesn't change the underlying principles of the essential role of marriage and parenthood in the plan), and parenthood a duty and important responsibility. Both lead to the fulfillment of God's eternal purposes to bring to pass our immortality and eternal life. That's doctrine.

I realize sometimes we throw that label around more loosely than that, but that is the sort of definition of doctrine I prefer. If we lump all teachings together and somehow put them on the same level, I think it has the potential to get confusing.

So, another example would be the law of Moses vs. the law of the gospel. Specific expectations, rites, even the details of the commandments were different, but the doctrinal foundation of both laws was the Atonement and the necessity of relying on the Savior for repentance and salvation.

Again, I think it is critical that we find those foundational doctrines that have always been there, from the beginning of time, that are taught in the scriptures, in the temple, and through prophets in all dispensations.

m&m said...

BiV,
I think that our posts can be complementary, but I do disagree with your use of the word doctrine. I don't see counsel regarding birth control as doctrinal, but as counsel. I think we can run into confusion when we conflate counsel with doctrine, because one changes, and the other doesn't...at least in the way I am using the terms.

And I get that usage from usage such as that below, from Pres. Packer (Ensign, November 1993):

Some things cannot be changed. Doctrine cannot be changed.

“Principles which have been revealed,” President Wilford Woodruff said, “for the salvation and exaltation of the children of men … are principles you cannot annihilate. They are principles that no combination of men [or women] can destroy. They are principles that can never die. … They are beyond the reach of man to handle or to destroy. … It is not in the power of the whole world put together to destroy those principles. … Not one jot or tittle of these principles will ever be destroyed.”

M&M said...

Ha, that comment to Ann was supposed to be on BiV's post...I'm so tired.....

ECS said...

m&m this is a well researched post. I'm not so sure, however, that the Church's position on birth control can be completely separated from the Church's position on "multiplying and replenishing".

In most cases, the use of birth control will limit the number of children a woman bears. All you need to do is look around in your own life to see evidence of this. And if you're still not convinced, look at the social science statistics.

The Bretheren are surely aware of the trend towards using birth control to limit the number of children.

As you point out, the Bretheren talk about "selfishness" being the cause of declining birth rates, but "selfishness" is a fairly vague concept. When is it "selfish" to limit the number of children and when is it permissible? Presumably, many women today are receiving personal revelation that enough is enough. We shouldn't judge women who have one or two children as "selfish". In fact, we're specifically counseled NOT to judge in these matters.

Therefore, I think the Bretheren are at least tacitly accepting that women will have fewer children now that birth control is more socially acceptable. In my opinion, birth control was something the Bretheren disapproved of (and probably still do), but since so many members decided to use birth control despite Church warnings against it, it became necessary for them to change the Church's policy.

M&M said...

ECS,
Thanks for your comment.

In most cases, the use of birth control will limit the number of children a woman bears.

Indeed. All the more reason that we'd best search our hearts on this and seek to really know God's will and not just let society or the normal stresses of life or personal whim dictate our choices. IMO, it's a heavy responsibility to bear that accountability. It's something that should sober us and bring us to our knees.

but "selfishness" is a fairly vague concept. When is it "selfish" to limit the number of children and when is it permissible?

Only God can really answer that question. Like I said, this is about heart and intent, and that is the most private place of religious life. Sometimes I think we ourselves won't even really look into our hearts to know what is there. I think the power of choice we have should cause us to really search our hearts and seek to make them pure in this regard.

I do believe that the struggle is part of it all, too. From personal experience, this most certainly isn't just an easy decision that can just be made on a whim. And the struggle can bring us closer to God if we will let it.

We shouldn't judge women who have one or two children as "selfish". In fact, we're specifically counseled NOT to judge in these matters.

I tried to make that very clear. That doesn't mean, however, that we can't address general trends and general concerns about those trends, which suggest that perhaps not all decisions really are correct - that as a people in general we could use a bit more faith in this regard.

Therefore, I think the Bretheren are at least tacitly accepting that women will have fewer children now that birth control is more socially acceptable.

Maybe. But they still make it clear that our eternal happiness and progress is directly dependent on how we approach these decisions -- in heart, not just in what is visible to others. If we think they are just accepting it all now, I think we are missing what they are saying. It's not just about social acceptance but about a serious spiritual approach regarding this commandment. Part of the purpose of this post was to bring that to the forefront. Because there is so much social acceptance of birth control I think we need to be careful that we not get swept into the social ways of doing things, but always let the doctrine, our covenants, and our personal relationship with God dictate what we do. "Everyone else was doing it" likely won't fly at judgment day, ya know? We will be accountable. That's the deal with agency, and birth control gives us a LOT of control and power over choices that generations before did not have at all. That can have its positives (health issues come to mind). But, again, I think this responsibility should sober us to the core, imo.

And I have to say that my experience has been that usually my will is not God's in this regard. Children came when I thought I wasn't ready for them, and now children aren't coming when I want them. If I had waited until I felt 'ready' I would not have at least one of my kids, period. Perish the thought.

M&M said...

I hope a takeaway from this is that it doesn't matter what society is doing, it doesn't matter what is acceptable or normal, it doesn't matter what neighbors, or ward members, or parents, or siblings, or anyone else thinks or does. God will not look at our lives relative to anyone else's. He will look at what we knew (doctrine), and He will look at our hearts (desires), and He will look at our efforts to do His will (obedience and works).

Nothing will change the fact that He knows our hearts. We can't fully know others', but we can't hide from the fact that He knows ours. So, to me that means that we should strive to have our hearts and desires be aligned with His plan (general and personal) and His will. How that unfolds in specifics for each righteous person/couple will be different. We should strive to be so connected to His plan (general and personal) that no forces outside of us will deter us from doing what we feel is right. What is 'right' is the key to figure out, and the Lord can help us figure that out. And then we can trust in His mercy as we do our best to carry that out.

Anonymous said...

Thanks so much, M & M. This is a wonderful post, very well researched and presented. I agree wholeheartedly.

Serena Davidson